When you have a friend with low self-esteem, it can be hard to know the right thing to say.
Is it better to commiserate? Encourage? Show some tough love?
According to a new study, for people who have overall low self-esteem, certain attempts by others to boost self-esteem may actually backfire.
That's the result of a new study in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. The findings suggest that people with low self-esteem may be resistant to their friends' efforts to help them feel better about themselves, particularly a strategy called positive reframing, which is a recasting of a situation in a positive light.
"People with low self-esteem always feel more comfortable and prefer to interact with people who see them as they see themselves," says study researcher Denise Marigold, Ph.D., an assistant professor in social development studies at the University of Waterloo's Renison University College. "If I'm speaking negatively about my life, I don't want someone to argue with me."
To people with low self-esteem, phrases like "No you're wrong, I think you're great!" or "Life is good!" can feel false and as if no one understands or accepts them for who they are. When "other people try to lift their spirits, it could feel invalidating," Marigold tells HuffPost. "They could feel there's something wrong with the way [they're] feeling or thinking."
People who are low in self-esteem tend to be more vulnerable and sensitive and are more aware of their environment, explains Celeste Gertsen, Ph.D. a Long Island-based psychologist in private practice, who was not involved in the new study.
"They often magnify the negative statements which people say to them versus the positive statements or events which come their way," Gertsen explains to HuffPost. So, if someone says something hurtful to a person with low self-esteem, that person will internalize it more than a person who has a higher sense of themselves.
While everyone goes through moments in life that completely tear us down (break-ups, layoffs, etc.), people who are overall high in self-esteem have a more resilient self-image -- thereby making them more receptive to positive reframing than people with low self-esteem. But what do you say to your friends who are overall low in self-esteem, who are going through a tough time? Here are some phrases to steer clear of:
In the aftermath of a break-up...
"You're so wonderful, you'll find someone else soon."
When a person isn't feeling particularly optimistic after a break-up, an expression of optimism may not be so welcome. If your friend is upset about being apart from Joe, or Dave, or Marie, in particular, then saying "You'll find someone else soon" isn't going to help. "There's something that can feel dismissive and false about that," Marigold says.
"It's not that big of a deal, you'll move on before you know it."
Again, a phrase like this can come off as dismissive. "It's minimizing the significance of it," Marigold says, even if you were only trying to put things into perspective.
"It was a great learning experience."
Sure, trying to find the silver lining in an experience might seem like it would be helpful. But even if it's true, "that's not necessarily something you want or need your friend to point out," Marigold says.
After a layoff...
"Don't worry, I'm sure you'll find another job soon."
But do you really know that your friend will find another job soon? "You don't know that, actually -- you don't know if another great partner or job is just around the corner," Marigold explains. To that effect, saying this "can feel kind of false and dismissive."
When feeling lonely...
"Well you could try joining this activity to meet new people."
This is surely well-intentioned -- you're encouraging your friend to be proactive by offering some solutions to the loneliness problem! But sometimes your friend is "not necessarily looking for solutions," Marigold says. "They can come up with those themselves. They can figure out how to meet people if they were motivated." All your friend may really want from you is someone to commiserate with him or her.
After receiving a bad grade on a test...
"It's just one test, it doesn't matter."
Just because you say something doesn't matter, doesn't mean it doesn't matter to the person who's affected by it, Marigold says.
So what should I say instead?
Sometimes, it may not involve saying much at all. "Just being there and letting them talk and lead the conversation" can be the best route of action, Marigold says. That can sometimes be hard on the receiving end -- especially if someone is spewing a lot of negativity -- but just letting someone talk can be exactly what they need. Plus, "if you have your own sort of similar experience, you can say, 'I related to that," or 'I know how difficult that is,'" Marigold suggests.
Gertsen also recommends being genuine in any attempts to build up someone with low self-esteem. "If you compliment somebody, it should be a sincere compliment, something that the person knows is a positive and that you're not just saying it," she says.
If the low self-esteem is tied to not being able to accomplish something, Gertsen suggests giving the person the opportunity to accomplish something that is at or only slightly above their ability level so that they can feel a sense of mastery about it.
And overall, it's important to acknowledge the upsetting or difficult situation -- and convey to a person with low self-esteem that it's OK to experience negative feelings about it, Marigold adds. It's also important to remember as a friend person that "it's not necessarily our job as support providers to make their situation better or bad things go away," she says. "Ultimately, what's better for their self-esteem and what can give them a confidence boost is [to know that] someone truly understands and cares and accepts them as they are."